You’ve tried sports drinks, chocolate milk, and good ‘ol H20 before stepping onto the treadmill or setting up shop in the weight room. But if you haven’t pre-gamed with beet juice, your workout is missing out.
Mounting evidence shows that drinking beet juice can improve your exercise performance and fitness gains. A recent study published in Circulation: Heart Failure, for instance, found that exercisers with heart failure who drank about 2/3 cup of concentrated beet juice enjoyed a significant boost in their muscle power just two hours later.
Another study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that healthy men who drank about a cup of beet juice extended their time-to-task failure during moderate-to-high intensity cycling tests two hours later.
Even if you aren’t a competitive athlete, that’s a big deal. After all, the more you can put into your workout, the more you’ll get out of it.
So how do beets work? While they’re rich in many health-promoting vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, beets’ naturally occurring nitrate is what draws the interest of exercisers and scientists alike, explains board-certified sports dietitian Georgie Fear, R.D., C.S.S.D., author of Lean Habits for Lifelong Weight Loss. Once in our bodies, this nitrate converts to nitric oxide, a compound that dilates blood vessels and thereby allows blood to move more efficiently to and from your muscles, she says.
Still, researchers are finding nitrates can do even more than that. “We are beginning to learn that nitrate also acts as a signaling molecule, directly affecting the contractile proteins within muscles,” explains Andrew R. Coggan, Ph.D., associate professor in the department kinesiology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and co-author of the Circulation: Heart Failure study. The more efficiently those proteins are able to work, the more forcefully your muscles can contract—making you stronger, faster, and able to exercise for longer.
The nitrate in beets is also believed to potentially affect your muscle cells’ mitochondria (microscopic power plants that use oxygen to convert food into cellular energy called ATP), improving the body’s conversion of energy during aerobic exercise, says Fear. During any given exercise, your body actually needs less oxygen to do its thing when you’ve got nitrate in your system, she says.
Fortunately, you don’t have to guzzle beet juice morning, noon, and night to benefit from its nitrates. Eating three to four whole beets or drinking one serving of beet juice is enough to help fuel your exercise, Coggan says.
Beet juice can also be found in powdered form. The powder is typically made by freeze-drying beet root—and sometimes the greens that grow from it, as well. Look for a label that lists beets as the only ingredient. These powders can be mixed into water, and have the same properties as your standard juice.
If you don’t like consuming beets plain, you can always experiment with blending them into your favorite pre-workout smoothie or protein shake recipes, Fear says.
Try Fear’s pear raspberry smoothie recipe if you’re still developing your love of beet flavor. Combine ¼ cup cooked beets, ¾ cup frozen raspberries, 1 cup orange juice, 1 large pear (cored and sliced), and ½ scoop vanilla whey protein powder in the blender. Blend until smooth and enjoy!
In terms of timing, Coggan recommends consuming beets or beet juice about two to three hours before your workout for peak nitric oxide levels and exercise performance. Keep in mind that your levels will drop by 50 percent in about eight hours, though, he says. So for optimum workout results, your best bet is to get your beet on every day—or at least every day you plan to exercise.